East Bay Then and Now: Buyer Sought for Historic West Berkeley Church

By Daniella Thompson
Berkley Daily Planet
August 10, 2007

Westminster Presbyterian Church, which changed hands last year, is on the market again. The third landmark designated by the City of Berkeley, the church at 926 Hearst Ave. and Eighth Street is the second oldest in town, having been built in 1879—a year after the neighboring Church of the Good Shepherd went up.

Originally called the First Presbyterian Church of West Berkeley, it was designed by the prominent San Francisco architect Charles Geddes (1820–1903). Geddes had already designed the Community United Methodist Church of Half Moon Bay in 1872 and would go on to design the Noe Valley Ministry of San Francisco in 1888.

In the same year that the Berkeley church was constructed, Geddes drew up plans for the Yosemite Chapel, the oldest building standing in Yosemite Valley and the first of the park's buildings to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Born in Nova Scotia, Geddes immigrated to the United States in 1848. In 1860, the U.S. census listed his occupation as "carpenter," but a decade later he had been upgraded to "architect." He appears to have teamed up with his son-in-law, the contractor-builder Samuel Thomson.

Geddes' work spans a spectrum of Victorian idioms, including Carpenter Gothic, Italianate, Stick style, and New England vernacular. Late in his career he became more experimental; for the Sheldon Jackson Museum (1895–07) in Sitka, Alaska, Geddes created a plain, octagonal concrete structure topped with a small, windowed octagonal cupola. Although not the first octagon in the West (five octagon houses were built in San Francisco in the mid-19th century), the museum was Alaska's first concrete building and startlingly modern-looking.

The First Presbyterian Church of West Berkeley was far more traditional—a typical Gothic Revival building executed in wood. Its details were announced in the Berkeley Advocate on May 8, 1879:

The First Presbyterian Church Society has accepted the lot in part donated by Captain Bowen, on the corner of Bristol and Eighth streets. The size of the lot is 52 x 100 feet, and the contract for the building has been awarded to George A. Embury, the builder of the East Berkeley Presbyterian Church, for $2,850. The building is to be 32 feet broad by 57 feet long, with a tower and a spire 80 feet from the ground. The tower will be 10 feet square. The audience room will be 30 ft. 9 in. by 40 ft., and will contain 44 pews, with seating capacity for about 200 persons, although much more space will be available when required by throwing open the lecture room, the size of which is to be 14 x 24 feet.

The whole interior of the building on the first floor, and the pastor's study in the tower, is to be plastered and hard-finished. The windows will be stained glass, imitation of lead work.

The church was completed in August 1879 and dedicated on Oct. 26 of that year. The congregation that commissioned it had started meeting four years earlier in the Ocean View School, where the Rev. Doc. James Curry began preaching. In 1877, the congregation was officially organized as the First Presbyterian Church of West Berkeley. At the time, there were only six members, including the first Ruling Elder, Captain James S. Higgins, owner of the Temperance Grocery Store at San Pablo Avenue and Delaware Street. Higgins' store began its life in 1854 as Captain William J. Bowen's inn. (The building still exists, now at 834 Delaware Street, and is a City of Berkeley Landmark.)

Captain Bowen not only made a partial donation of land for the church but served as one of the congregation's first five trustees.

The congregation remained small throughout its 95-year existence, seldom reaching 75 members. It occasionally blamed its low membership on the nearby presence of saloons, West Berkeley being outside the one-mile perimeter around the university campus within which liquor sales were prohibited. When local option was being hotly debated in West Berkeley, Rev. George H. Wilkins, pastor from 1906 to 1909, was hung in effigy in the middle of the street.

Being impecunious, the congregation relied on assistance from Presbyterian Church mission funds. In 1899, the session minutes recorded that "there are no specially poor to be cared for by the church. All are very poor and while caring for self have but little for other things." Despite its poverty, the congregation rose to the challenge after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, offering shelter to refugees who had fled to Berkeley.

In 1899, the name was informally changed to Westminster Presbyterian Church to avoid confusion with the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley. The change was never made legal, since that would have entailed the payment of $1 to the Probate Court. Yet in 1914 they managed to scrape together $1,950 and built a two-story clubhouse designed by Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr.

The congregation stopped using the buildings in 1968 and officially disbanded in 1972. The property was acquired by Lawrence Gerard Smith, a self-styled "Catholic Orthodox priest" unaffiliated with the Catholic Church. Smith renamed it St. Procopius Latin Rite Church and celebrated a traditional Latin mass that attracted no more than 20 parishioners each Sunday.

The church interior being rather plain and austere, Smith set about adorning it. He was fortunate to meet the Albany artist Gerald Gaxiola, who agreed to paint a mural on the empty wall behind the altar. Gaxiola, later to gain a modicum of fame as the subject of Les Blank's film "The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists," spent four months populating the wall with life-size figures forming an ecumenical survey of Catholicism. The deep-perspective scene also included Lawrence Smith, dressed in black robe and cowl, and the bare-chested, muscle-bound artist at his easel. At the very top, two adult male angels in their birthday suits, wings flapping, looked down on the mitered crowd.

Smith also installed stained-glass windows in the sanctuary. Although Geddes' original plans called for "stained glass, imitation of lead work," funding must have proved insufficient, and the Westminster Presbyterian congregation made do with hammered glass. It was also during Smith's watch that the church was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark.

In 1977, Smith was one of 20 candidates running for the Berkeley city council. The same year, he was convicted of a misdemeanor child molestation charge and sentenced to probation. The police kept an eye on him thereafter. He was in the habit of picking up boys at James Kenney Park, as well as in San Francisco and Oakland, but no evidence against him turned up until 1983, when Smith was charged with six felony counts of sexually abusing Vietnamese and Hispanic boys. He was sentenced to eight months in prison in January 1984.

Amazingly, Smith returned to the church following his spell in prison and owned it for another nine years. In 1993, when members of the Mekane Selam Medhane Alem Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church saw it for the first time, St. Procopius had been closed for five years, says Benyam Mulugeta, chair of the Medhane Alem board.

Formed in 1986, the congregation had been using other churches' facilities for their services. They bought Smith's church for $300,000, after which Smith demanded an additional payment for the stained-glass windows. Since Medhane Alem declined to buy them, Smith took the windows with him to Mexico, says Mulugeta.

Smith settled on Calle Libertad in Guadalajara, across the street from the U.S. Consulate General. There, too, he got into trouble, albeit of a different kind. David Agren, a Canadian journalist living in Guadalajara, twice reported in his blog that Smith aroused the ire of his neighbors by sheltering as many as 95 stray dogs in his home. Following a lawsuit, a failed appeal, and many fines from the city, Smith moved the dogs and was looking for another place to live.

Shorn of its stained-glass windows, the sanctuary next lost the Gaxiola mural. The Ethiopian Orthodox congregation was not interested in a Roman Catholic mural, and the nudity offended some parishioners. There was apparently no curiosity about the identity of the artist, either. The mural was painted over, and the sanctuary reverted to its plain and austere Presbyterian appearance, only more so, since the hammered glass was gone, too. Remaining is the lovely wooden staircase ascending to the organ loft, where the organ appears to be intact.

Medhane Alem eventually outgrew the church. Two years ago, the congregation bought the former First United Lutheran Church on Mountain Blvd. in Oakland. Initially they had planned to turn the Berkeley church into a monastery and school but have since determined that they need at least ten acres—they want to include a retreat and some farming operations—and are looking beyond the Bay Area for suitable land.

After sitting empty for a year, the church was acquired last year by the Pentecostal congregation New Word of Faith. Bishop Nathaniel L. Brown says that his congregation is already outgrowing the space. Since many of the parishioners are in recovery from substance abuse or other criminal activities, they are finding it hard to keep up with payments on their usurious first mortgage (the second mortgage is carried by Medhane Alem).

Appraised last year for $2,100,000, the church is currently listed for $1,700,000. Included are the 4,200-square-foot chapel and the Ratcliff-designed assembly hall, which contains a dining hall with a 200-person capacity, a full kitchen, four bedrooms, three bathrooms, four offices, a storage room, and an attic. The church is available for immediate move-in. For more information contact Benyam Mulugeta at (650) 906-8012.

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.